I was watching Silent Witness last night (don’t @ me), and snorted at how dreadful the depiction of the District Judge was who ignored the obvious signs of domestic violence and tackled the case with all the sensitivity and panache of Jack out of On the Buses, just in pinstripes. How ludicrously exaggerated, I thought, we are so far beyond that in our modern understanding.
And then I read the JH v MF appeal.
[Maybe it was an exceptionally bad day rather than a true representation of the Judge’s usual approach, but this is one of the most withering appeal judgments I have ever read]
This was a private law case involving allegations of domestic abuse and violence and the impact that they would have, if proved, on the father’s contact with his child. The mother was represented by counsel, the father was not. The Judge at first instance His Honour Judge Tolson QC, conducted cross-examination of the mother on the father’s behalf so that the father would not be asking her questions directly. This is an issue which legal commentators, and the judiciary have been troubled by for some time, and the judicial approach here with the Judge asking the questions is in line with the guidance provided by the senior Courts.
The mother had asked for screens to be made available so that she could give her evidence without having to look at the father. That’s not at all unusual, and it is usually a request that is granted, albeit that there’s normally a lot of faff in actually producing the screens. Here though, the Judge decided that the mother should give her evidence from the counsel’s bench, rather than the witness box. The Judge then, without any request by the father, decided that father too should give evidence from counsel’s bench. That meant, in reality, that the father’s evidence was given with his McKenzie Friend sitting by his side. [I note also that the Judge accepted in his judgment that he could not hear all of the evidence given by the mother]
The judge then proceeded to order that the Respondent, too, should give evidence from counsel’s row making reference to the “feng shui” of the court room and the screens and saying that it was fair and “created some kind of balance” without any application having been made by the Respondent that he needed to give evidence in the same manner as the Appellant. Concerns raised by counsel were dismissed without reasons being given for this decision by the judge. The Respondent was then able to give evidence sitting next to his McKenzie friend who was, as a consequence, able to assist the Respondent in the answers he gave when the Respondent was being cross-examined. It follows that the Respondent was given an advantage and assistance denied to the Appellant. As was submitted by trial counsel in her skeleton argument and I accept “… it is plain and requires no citation that when a witness is giving evidence, they are ‘under oath’ and are to receive no prompting, assistance or advice during the midst of it.”
Ms Justice Russell DBE, hearing the mother’s appeal, ruled that this failing alone was sufficient to grant the appeal, but
…along with his conduct of this case any broad analysis of his judgment, and approach to the fact-finding is so flawed as to lead to the conclusion that it is unsafe and wrong. Counsel submits that the judge failed to apply the provisions on PD12J of the FPR 2010 and drew this Court’s attentions to the following definitions;
“domestic abuse” includes any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.
- “coercive behaviour” means an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim
- “controlling behaviour” means an act or pattern of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour:”
- It forms part of the Appellant’s case that the judge failed to apply these definitions, or at the very least, keep them in mind. That submission is accepted.
According to trial counsel’s notes the trial concluded at 16:30, and she, as for the Appellant, was unable to make the all the closing submissions she intended to in the time that was allowed to her which commencing at 16:45, not least as her oral submissions were repeatedly interrupted by the judge. The judge did not then call on the Respondent at all. The real risk of the appearance of a partisan approach in the judge’s conduct is self-evident. This was compounded when, after delivering his judgment at 17:55, the judge ordered a s7 report and invited the Cafcass Officer to consider Cafcass contact intervention, yet no evidence in respect of the need for this was given or considered during the trial, and the Appellant was denied any opportunity to address the court about the necessity for, or the imposition of such conditions. The judge then failed to give any reasons for so doing and further compounded his errors when, on 23rd August 2019, the judge directed Cafcass to investigate any child protection concerns in the Appellant’s care of C. Nothing in respect of this was raised at trial, there was no evidence (indeed the opposite was indicated in the safeguarding correspondence) before the court to support such a direction but the trial judge saw fit to impose such a direction, nonetheless
The judgment is heavily criticised. There’s a startling passage in relation to text messages sent by the father to the mother (some at least during the course of the hearing) – where the Judge describes as ‘sexting’ by the father a message which, well, is clearly not ‘sexting’. [Apologies for the language, but I think it is necessary to see the bald words in order to form your own views]
- Secondly, after failing to deal with the text messages, sent by to the Appellant by the Respondent, during the hearing and on being addressed by counsel in respect of this failure on application for permission to appeal, the judge had concluded that graphic, sexually explicit and threatening texts such as “If you don’t shut up I will stick my cock up your ass” were consistent with “sexting” and were not “helpful”. It had not been the Respondent’s case that the texts were “sexting”, nor was this put to the Appellant during her evidence. Not only was the content of the texts likely to have been relevant in connection with any consideration of controlling and coercive behaviour, it may well have had relevance in connection with the complaints of sexual assault. Notwithstanding the relevance of the texts as evidence, it would seem that the judge wholly failed to understand that is the effect on the recipient that is pertinent when considering whether any message or communication is threatening and/or abusive.
The most troubling portions of the judgment relate to the trial Judge’s approach to the allegations by mother that the father had engaged in sexual intercourse with her against her will. The way that Ms Justice Russell analysed those portions (as set out below) is that a very experience Family Court Judge had wholly miscategorised the issue of consent and had instead approached matters as though the mother was required to establish rape by showing that she had attempted to fight the father off and because she had not done so, there was consent.
[There are some High Court decisions over the last few years about experts being given a right of address before career-threatening or damaging findings are made. These comments seem to fall within that ballpark to me. ]
- The phrase “out-dated” is a euphemistic one on full consideration of the judge’s approach to the Appellant’s consenting to sexual intercourse in a physical position and manner which she, even on the judge’s assessment, found repugnant and was “sexual intercourse which was not, at the time, towards the [Appellant’s] taste or inclination.” …Paragraph 22)
- The relevant passages in his judgment which make most concerning reading are to be found in paragraphs 23, 24, 25, 26, 27 and 28. I have not set them out in full detail nor should it be necessary to do so as it is clear that the judge’s approach towards the issue of consent is manifestly at odds with current jurisprudence, concomitant sexual behaviour, and what is currently acceptable socio-sexual conduct.
- The judge, having started by accepting that the Appellant “had difficulties in taking physical enjoyment from sex…” because of events in her past and had often told the Respondent to stop during intercourse in the past then went on to accept that on the first of the two incidents of penetrative sexual assault the Appellant had been reluctant to have sex, that during intercourse she asked him to stop and he did not and carried on; this appears to have been accepted by the Respondent to some extent as he said both that he stopped and later that the Appellant had not asked him to stop. Paragraph 23 reads “…the first occasion it is the mother’s own case that sexual intercourse began with her consent, and consent was only removed during intercourse when the mother told the father to stop — but he failed to do so. The difficulties do not end there because this is a mother who very often, and for all I know, always, found that she had difficulties in taking physical enjoyment from sex. She would, she tells me, often tell the father to stop during the times when intercourse between them was more frequent than it was in 2016. The difficulties arose, apparently, because of events in her past…” The judge then went on to comment both that the Appellant had not physically resisted and that she was upset afterwards but dismissed her distress in this way; “If the [Appellant] was upset afterwards, which the [Respondent] recognises, this was nothing unusual because of the difficulties I have mentioned.”
- At paragraph 24 of his judgment the judge dealt with the Appellant telling the Respondent to stop penetrating her in this way “…the sex in question took place with the mother kneeling on the bed and the father standing behind her. During intercourse she told him to stop, but he did not, and carried on at least for “a couple of minutes”, which is a description given, I think, to the police. It is part of the mother’s case that she took no physical step to encourage the father to desist. The father’s contention is that the sex between them on this occasion, which he recognises because it was one of very few occasions when the parties had sex during the year in question, was entirely consensual from beginning to end, and he was not told to stop. If the mother was upset afterwards, which the father recognises, this was nothing unusual because of the difficulties which I have mentioned.”
- Further in dealing with her consent the judge continued (at paragraph 25); “My concern about this occasion centres on the idea that the mother did nothing physically to stop the father. In particular, given the position in which intercourse was occurring, because the mother was not in any sense pinned down on this occasion, but could easily, physically, have made life harder for the father. She did not do so. I do not find that the father was in any way on this occasion so physically forcing her as to cause her not to be able to take preventative measures, nor, in fact, is that case alleged. Following the event, as I have already said, the mother took no immediate action to report the matter to the police, or indeed to anyone else. Her description, of course, does not indicate that the circumstances were such that she might in any way have been thought wise to seek medical advice.”
- This judgment is flawed. This is a senior judge, a Designated Family Judge, a leadership judge in the Family Court, expressing a view that, in his judgment, it is not only permissible but also acceptable for penetration to continue after the complainant has said no (by asking the perpetrator to stop) but also that a complainant must and should physically resist penetration, in order to establish a lack of consent. This would place the responsibility for establishing consent or lack thereof firmly and solely with the complainant or potential victim. Whilst the burden of proving her case was with the Appellant in any counter allegation the burden lay with the Respondent. Indeed it was the Respondent who had brought the case as the applicant in the Family Court, thus the burden of proof did not lie solely with the Appellant. Moreover the judge should have been fully aware that the issue of consent is one which has developed jurisprudentially, particularly within the criminal jurisdiction, over the past 15 years (of which more below).
- The judge’s view in respect of consent is underscored by his comment at paragraph 25 (as quoted above) when he said, “My concern about this occasion centres on the idea that the [Appellant] did nothing physically to stop the [Respondent].” The judge then went on to say that because the Appellant was on all fours on the bed, at the Respondent’s insistence this would have, according to this judge, made it easier for her to resist and “made life harder for the [Respondent]…” and that the Respondent had not, the judge found (again the evidence on which he reached this conclusion is absent from the judgment), been “so physically forcing her as to cause her not to be able to take preventative measures [sic]..”. The judge then comments that the Appellant did not take immediate action to call the police or anyone else and that her description, in the view of this judge, did not “indicate that the circumstances were such that she might in any way have been thought wise to seek medical advice.” In keeping with his approach thus far the judge had apparently concluded that it is necessary for victims of sexual assault to report the assault or make a contemporaneous report. Yet it is now explicitly accepted that many victims will not do so, out of fear or embarrassment which are based on their cultural, social or religious background and the concomitant pressures, mores or beliefs.
- The judge then considered the second incident when the Appellant says sexual intercourse took place without her consent at paragraph 26 of his judgment. “The second occasion, occurring some two months later, began with the parties watching television whilst in bed. The father suggested the television should be turned off. As I understand it, it is common ground that it was, and then the father, again, requested sex of the mother. This time the mother’s case is that she refused, and when intercourse began it was not with her consent. She says that she was wearing pyjamas. The father took the pyjamas off and had intercourse with her, again from behind. This was at no point, the mother says, with her consent. The father maintains to the contrary — that intercourse was initiated by both of the parties and was entirely consensual throughout. Again, he recalls the occasion of which the mother speaks. Here, my difficulty with the mother’s account centres on the removal of her pyjama bottoms. I should emphasise that father’s account is that in fact she was wearing a nightie. I do not see why the mother could not, should not, have made life difficult for the father in the circumstances in which she found herself by preventing the removal of the pyjama bottoms. There is no evidence of any kind that a struggle pursued, nor again is a case advanced that the father was being physically coercive on this occasion. Insistent in his requests, yes, but physically coercive, no.”
- The Respondent was once again penetrated by the Respondent from behind. The Respondent said she consented. The Appellant said she did not at any point consent to sexual intercourse taking place. At paragraph 26 (quoted above) the judge said, “…my difficulty with the [Appellant’s] account centres on the removal of her pyjama bottoms…I do not see why the [Appellant] could not, should not, have made life difficult for the [Respondent] in the circumstances by preventing the removal of the pyjama bottoms.” Again the judge’s conclusion on whether sex was consensual or not is wrongly predicated on the presumption that to establish non-consensual penetration the complainant should have physically resisted. Similarly, the judge said “There is no evidence of any kind that a struggle pursued, nor again is a case advanced that the father was being physically coercive (my emphasis) on this occasion” as can be seen below physical coercion or violence or the threat of violence is not considered a necessary element when considering consent or the lack of consent, thus the judge was wrong in his approach.
- This time (as the judge noted in paragraph 27 of his judgment) the Appellant did report a serious sexual assault to the Police. Paragraph 27 reads “The [Appellant] “was to report these events to the police at the end of August. But there may be some significance in the circumstances in which she did so because one of her friends, [P], in her written statement, appears to imply that the purpose of the visit to the police station at the end of August was to report father’s threats made to her [P}, and that it was almost incidental that the question of the mother being forced to have sex (the expression used in [P’s] police statement) came to be revealed. Moreover, the terms of [P’s] statement, again, can hardly be said to be heavily supportive of mother’s case as to the terms in which the mother was reporting what happened to her. [P’s] account contains the following sentence: ‘I asked her what had then happened and she told me that she had let the father have sex with her as it was easier than to keep saying no.’ That can hardly be said to support a coherent account of rape.”
- Thus the circumstances in which the complaint was made was impliedly, and to some extent explicitly, criticised by the judge because the Appellant had originally accompanied a friend to the police station to complain about the Respondent’s aggressive behaviour to that friend, and it was the friend who had raised the incident of sexual assault on the Appellant with the Police. The friend told the Police, as the judge quoted in his judgment (above), ‘“I asked her what had happened and she said that she had let the [Respondent] have sex with her as it was easier than saying no.”‘ This, the judge found, could hardly be said to support a coherent account of rape. This conclusion is obtuse, any decision of consent must include a coherent account (to borrow the judge’s own phrase) and consideration of the extent to which the complainant or victim was free to choose and to consent, or to paraphrase the relevant criminal statute (s74 Sexual Offences Act (SOA) 2003), that person has had the freedom and capacity to make that choice. It is arguable, at the very least, that the evidence before the judge was that the Appellant’s freedom and capacity to choose had been extinguished or at least gravely compromised.
- At paragraph 28 of his judgment, which reads “My findings on this occasion, as to both these occasions, is that the sex between the parties carried the consent of both. This was not rape. It may have been that at a point during both occasions of intercourse the mother became both upset and averse to the idea of the intercourse continuing. But if she did so, I emphasise this was something which was usual for her, the product of events in her past and her psychological state in not being able to take physical pleasure from sex. It was not a consequence of any action on the part of the father. Moreover, at no point during these occasions do I find that the mother withdrew consent or conveyed to the father any discomfiture that she was feeling about the intercourse continuing. I cannot even, on this evidence, find that the father was somehow insensitive to the mother’s position. I can accept that he would have asked for sex perhaps on a number of occasions before sex commenced, but that is as far as it goes. Given the nature of these allegations I have felt it necessary to set out these detailed findings in respect of it.”
- Thus, the judge had accepted that “at a point during both occasions of intercourse the [Appellant] became both upset and averse to the idea of intercourse continuing. [My emphasis]” but he continued to reach the conclusion that had the Appellant done so it was not as a consequence of any action on the part of the Respondent because it was “something that was usual for her, the product of her past and her psychological state in not being able to take physical pleasure from sex.” The judge went to say that “at no point do I find that the [Appellant] withdrew consent or conveyed to the [Respondent] any discomfiture that she was felling about intercourse continuing.” The judge failed to explain the reasons for his findings; as to why, if it was evident to the judge that the Appellant had become averse to sexual intercourse continuing it was not evident to the Respondent; and, secondly, why it was acceptable for the Respondent to insist on sexual intercourse knowing that it was distressing and unwelcome to the Appellant. The evidence that the judge had rehearsed thus far did would not support such a finding nor did he give any or adequate reasons for preferring the evidence of the Respondent, other than the bald comment in paragraph 13 that he had found him to be “the more convincing witness, giving his evidence in a straight-forward, forthright manner…” The fact is that this judge had largely relied on his view that the Appellant had not vigorously physically fought off the Respondent.
- Moreover, the judge did not consider or explain in his judgment why, as it was an accepted fact that the Appellant was unable to take physical pleasure from sex, there was no onus on the Respondent to establish that the Appellant was able to and was freely exercising her right to choose whether or not to participate in sexual intercourse. The logical conclusion of this judge’s approach is that it is both lawful and acceptable for a man to have sex with his partner regardless of their enjoyment or willingness to participate.
The Appeal Judge went on to give guidance to the Family Courts in general
- While a trial in the Family Court cannot, and must not, set out to replicate a trial or to apply, or seek to apply, Criminal Law or statute it cannot be lawful or jurisprudentially apposite for the Family Court to apply wholly different concepts or to take an approach wholly at odds from that which applies in the criminal jurisdiction when it comes to deciding whether incidents involving sexual intercourse, whether vaginally penetrative or not, and other sexual acts including oral penetration, penetration by an object or in other form were non-consensual. Non-consensual sexual intercourse was considered lawful within a marriage until as late as 1992 (Cf. R  1 AC 599) it has not been lawful in any other sphere for generations. There is no principle that lack of consent must be demonstrated by physical resistance, this approach is wrong, family judges should not approach the issue of consent in respect of serious sexual assault in a manner so wholly at odds with that taken in the criminal jurisdiction (specifically the changes in place since SOA 2003 and subsequent amendments). Serious sexual assault, including penetrative assault, should be minimised as an example of coercive and controlling behaviour (itself a criminal offence) although such behaviour may form part of the subordination of a potential victim’s will (see the guidance set out at paragraphs 19 and 20 above).
- To consider the relevant approach to be taken reference should be made to the statutory provisions in respect of consent; s 74 of the Sexual Offences Act (SOA) 2003 provides that “‘Consent’ (for the purposes of this Part – my parenthesis) a person consents if he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.” There are circumstances in criminal law where there can be evidential or conclusive presumptions that the complainant did not consent set out in ss75 & 76 which, respectively, concern the use or threat of violence by the perpetrator and the use of deception; neither of which preclude reliance on s74 (Cf. Blackstone’s B3.46 2020 ed.)
- To quote from Blackstone’s Criminal Practice [2020 at B3.28] where the absence of consent is considered it is said “the definition in s74 with its emphasis on free agreement, is designed to focus upon the complainant’s autonomy. It highlights the fact that a complainant who simply freezes with no protest or resistance may nevertheless not be consenting. Violence or the threat of violence is not a necessary ingredient. To have the freedom to make a choice a person must be free from physical pressure, but it remains a matter of fact for a jury as to what degree of coercion has to be exercised upon a person’s mind before he or she is not agreeing by choice with the freedom to make that choice. Context is all-important.” There can be no reason why this approach should not be followed in the Family Court, whilst applying a different standard of proof. The deleterious and long-term effects on children of living within a home domestic abuse and violence, including serious sexual assault, has been accepted for some years, as is the effects on children’s welfare, and their ability to form safe and healthy relationships as adults, if their parents or carers are themselves subjected to assault and harm.
- In respect of consent in the criminal jurisdiction, which should inform the approach in the Family Court, the authors of Blackstone’s set out at B3.29 “Consent covers a range of behaviour from whole-hearted enthusiastic agreement to reluctant acquiescence. Context is critical. Where the prosecution allegation of absence of consent is based on lack of agreement without evidence of violence or threats of violence, there will be circumstances, particularly where there has been a consensual sexual relationship between the parties, where a jury will require assistance with distinguishing lack of consent from reluctant but free exercise of choice.” The Court of Appeal Criminal Division considered that a direction along the lines of the direction of Pill J approved in Zafar (Cf. the Crown Court Compendium (July 2019), chapter 20.4, para. 4) may well be appropriate. It should be advisable for Family Court judges to remind themselves of this approach and direct themselves appropriately based on the relevant approach contained in Chapter 20.
- With further reference to B3.29 (Ibid) and the approach to take in making the distinction lack of consent from reluctant but free exercise of choice; “submission to a demand that a complainant feels unable to resist may in certain circumstances be consistent with reluctant acquiescence” (Cf. Watson  EWCA Crim 559); or where a complainant’s free choice was overborne so that they did not have a free choice; an example of which was when a complainant gave into a perpetrator’s demands because she was scared that if she did not he would have sex with her by force.
- As a further example of the approach to be taken in respect of consent in civil proceedings in Archbold Criminal Pleading and Evidence 2020, Chapter 20, Part II, at A [20-23] reference is made to the case of Assange v Swedish Prosecution Authority  EWHC 2849 as “relied on in R. (F.) v DPP  EWHC 945 (Admin);  2 Cr App R 21, DC, for the proposition that ‘choice’ is crucial to the issue of ‘consent’; and the evidence relating to ‘choice’ and the ‘freedom’ to make any particular choice must be approached in a broad common sense way; where, therefore, a woman consents to penetration on the clear understanding that the man will not ejaculate within her vagina, if, before penetration begins, the man has made up his mind that he will ejaculate before withdrawal, or even, because ‘penetration is a continuing act from entry to withdrawal’ (s.79(2) (§ 20-42)), decides, after penetration has commenced, that he will not withdraw before ejaculation, just because he deems the woman subservient to his control, she will have been deprived of choice relating to the crucial feature on which her original consent was based, and her consent will accordingly be negated.”
- A further and instructive distinction between consent and submission and the approach to be followed was drawn in R v Kirk (Peter & Terence)  EWCA Crim 434:  3 WLUK 36, by Pill J at  where the expression “willing submission” had been used in directing the jury, it was said that the use of the expression was “not an easy one in this context. Willingness is usually associated with consent. However, we are satisfied that the jury would not, in the context of this very full direction, have been misled by the use of the word “willing”. This was not a case where it was alleged that submission had been achieved by physical force. It was willing in the sense that there was no attempt at physical resistance by the complainant and the judge used it in that sense. That leaves open the possibility that the circumstances were such that the complainant submitted to sexual intercourse rather than consented to it. That was the overall effect of the direction. We are satisfied that, having regard to the full direction given, the jury would not have been misled or distracted, by the use of the expression “willing submission”, from the question they were told they had to answer. It is not, however, an expression we would commend for use on other occasions.”
- The judge in the instant case should have considered the likelihood that the Appellant had submitted to sexual intercourse; he singularly and comprehensively failed to do so instead employing obsolescent concepts concerning the issue of consent.
For the reasons set out above the judgment was so flawed as to require a retrial; his decision was unjust because of serious procedural irregularity and multiple errors of law. The case is to be remitted for retrial by a High Court Judge or Deputy High Court Judge at the Royal Courts of Justice.
- Judges in the family courts are regularly required to make decisions and find facts in cases where there is domestic abuse; this will include cases where serious sexual assault is alleged to have taken place. Currently there is comprehensive training on the procedural aspects of such trials and the implementation of PD12J in particular. Judges who sit in the family courts are not, however, required to undergo training on the appropriate approach to take when considering allegations of serious sexual assault where issues of consent are raised. Such training is provided to judges who are likely to try serious sexual allegations in the criminal courts. In principle the approach taken in family proceedings should be congruent with the principles applied in the criminal jurisdiction. I have discussed this with The President of the Family Division, and he is going to make a formal request to the Judicial College for those judges who may hear cases involving allegations of serious sexual assault in family proceedings to be given training based on that which is already provided to criminal judges. This is a welcome development, a cross-jurisdictional approach to training on this important topic will be of assistance, support and benefit to all judges and will foster a more coherent approach